No longer are the cons simply for meeting your favorite author or artist, dressing up as your favorite pop culture character, and celebrating the stories you love with others like you. Most cons have now evolved into rotating stages that reveal the latest snippets of ensuing blockbusters and a circus of big news outlets capitalizing on various fandoms while boosting ratings with “exclusive” interviews. The accessible “meet-and-greets” with big time comic book artists of past cons have exploded into exhibitor halls stuffed to the brim with studio booths, merchandising, and artist allies. Good portions of comic con attendees would rather spend most of their time in a two mile long line outside than inside the actual convention center
Sure, as I’ve mentioned in past work, there are moments packed with meaningful reflection on popular stories, opportunities for fans to participate with creators in shaping the future of their beloved pop stories, Q&A spaces to find guidance for their dreams to create. But at the of the end of the day, cons are really about what the big studios are up to next and how get in on the known before the rest of the world -- or at least this is what I thought the Comic Cons were about.
Disillusioned by the bells of whistles of SDCC 2018 I was almost ready to pass up a chance to check out New York Comic Con. If the San Diego Comic Con is the Mecca of all cons and popular culture, why fly across the country to experience a wannabe convention? After talking to friends at my local comic book store, however, they assured me that NYCC was something not to miss; That NYCC is truly about fans, the stories they love and what it all means for the world around them. So with my interest peaked, and a last minute free flight to New York, I decided to give NYCC a chance. And my goodness was I glad I went.
Sure, there were still your typical media vultures and bustling crowds charging to the exclusive screenings, but there was much more than that. After experiencing some of the biggest cons out there, I can say with confidence that there is nothing like New York Comic Con. These weren’t just spaces for participatory culture; they were chances to engage and form what Henry Jenkins calls the civic imagination. I left not only applauding what some forms of pop culture are doing for the greater good, but I also left challenged to give more thought to the social realities these stories point to, not the stories themselves. I came away from the con having a much different perspective on place, body, and imagination. Allow me to expand on each.
For past cons, I never thought twice about where they were located. I only thought it was strategic to have your con at popular city with weather conducive for those kinds of events. However, it wasn’t until after a few panels at NYCC that I realized something very different in comparison to previous cons, especially SDCC -- I saw a lot of people who looked like me and who didn’t. In other words, it was extremely diverse. It’s not like the demographics of other cons are all that homogeneous, it’s that NYCC was noticeably diverse. Not only was this reflected in the types of panels scheduled (there were more panels about PoCs and/or the Queer community in one day than the whole four days of Wonder Con!) but in terms of vocation and location as well. This was most evident in the “Fandom for Teachers Panel.” Moderating the panel was Tim Smyth, a high school social science teacher from PA, and on the panel were folks like comics editor Christian “Steenz” Stewart and Dr. Katie Monnin, Director of Education at Pop Culture Classroom. Having these on the ground creators and educator’s allowed panel conversations to push pass the few often discussed heroes of color in Marvel and D.C., and engage the inspiring work of independent publishers, like Lion Forge and Oni Press. They brought new insights to role comics play in increasing literacy levels by pointing out that comics are a multimodal path to learning how to read words and images -- a skill much needed in our visual age.
So what does this have to do with “place” you ask? Well everything. Unlike San Diego (Comic Con), New York City is more financially and geographically accessible to neighboring cities and states. Not only are subways and buses connecting the five boroughs to NYCC, but wider railway interstate rail networks do as well. Some of these modes of transportations don’t cost nearly as much as some forms of public transportation you’d have to take if you lived a couple hours north of San Diego. On top of the accessibility, you have a different institutional layout of the City compared to most cities with cons. There are plethora of public schools surrounding the Javits center, and NYCC knows it. Free admission into the con are offered to educators and their selected students. A lounge is provided for people involved in the fields of library information science and education at all levels.
I don’t say all this to necessarily shame other cons. You try finding a venue to fit 75,000 people in downtown San Diego. It also makes sense that SDCC has become a backstage pass to all things going on in superhero Hollywood given the con’s proximity to a major hub in the movie business. That said, the program coordinators of NYCC demonstrate an institutional awareness of the place and space in a way I have never seen in a pop culture convention. On top of the spaces mentioned above, there are fan lounges, safe changing rooms for cosplayers. For teachers with kids (or anyone with small children for that matter) a specific area in the convention center is designated for children with coloring books for all ages. The panels in the New York Public Library were stocked with snacks and coffee for attendees. Upon leaving NYCC, I felt that I had not only a good sense of how diverse the comic book community is and what people are using pop culture for, but also a deeper appreciation for the diversity of the city and a better understanding for challenges within public school systems in that region. I left refreshed by their hospitality and concienscience of how the where effects the what and the who.
“I no longer call people racist,” said author of Strange Fruit Volume I: Uncelebrated Narratives from Black History, Joel Christian Gill. As expected, an awkward silence fell on the room, which was tactfully broken by his next remark, “ I tell them that they lack the empathy, the imagination, to see life from another embodied existence other than their own.” Gill along with his fellow panelists went on to elaborate that their goal at Lion Forge and other independent publishing companies was to offer as many different stories about embodied life as they could. From Katie Green’s Lighter than My Shadow which explores mental health and eating disorders, to Ezra Daniel’s Upgrade Soul which allegorizes ageism and different abledness, to David Walker’s Superb which also looks at ableness and race. “Human existence is so much more than my abled, biracial, cis perspective. My work reminds myself of that and hopefully others,” said Walker.
This respect for the many sacred stories our bodies can carry was another gem of NYCC. During the #METOO #TIMESUP: An Action Summit for Comics panel, a significant amount of time was given to the fact that NYCC is the only con to have an explicit, systematically enforced Anti-Harassment Policy which was captured in the popular slogan, “cosplay is not consent.” In addition to this, there was a separate stage for panels solely dedicated to cosplaying with topics like body positivity, eating habits, and navigating wardrobes as nonbinary people of color with mental illness,” yes that was actual title of a panel.The perception of the human body there was more holistic than some christian anthropologies!
In his second letter to the Church in Corinth, Paul reflects on how he and friends can comfort the Corinthians in their embodied sufferings since he has been through similar bodily suffering. He found redemption in his bodily sufferings for Christ because the comfort he received through God during them can be offered to those he mentors. A similar conversation took place at the #METOO panel’s Q&A. Before the mic was open to guests, Lilah Sturges shared about her experience as a trans woman who went through her transformation halfway during her career. She shared about what it was like to be apart of a social group of power and privilege as a man to sharing a space with the marginalized in the office. Her testimony encouraged the rest of panel to share about their encounters with sexism and assault in the workplace. Afterwards, a line of women grew from the mic with the first young woman sharing about when she was assaulted by a film producer. Each person was able to share their appreciation for the bravery of the women on the panel and explained that they were braver going forward because of the panelists’ openness.
Henry Jenkins et al. describe the civic imagination as “the capacity to imagine alternatives to current social, political, or economic institutions or problems. Put bluntly, one cannot change the world unless one can imagine what a better world might look like.” By the end of NYCC I witnessed a community of storytellers, producers, and readers using their favorite pop culture stories, or ones that they created, to imagine a world different than the current one. I encountered people who believed that the world as it currently exists “didn’t have to be this way.”
“While we achieve a state of flourishing as a society through informed decisions, it is a well founded imagination that constructive information is built upon, said Amie Wright, library manager at New York Public Library. This is what lead author and illustrator Edgardo Miranda-Rodriguez to create his character La Borinqueña. Even before Maria tore through Puerto Rico, political, economic, and social issues plagued the island and its people. Most frustrating to Miranda-Rodriguez was the fact that everyone in mainstream culture was obsessing over how much Avengers: Age of Ultron made at the box office, when Puerto Rico was being forced to pay an astronomical debt, that it was not entirely responsible for accruing, while supervised by a unilaterally created debt management team. “If people wanted to talk about superheroes, I was going to give a superhero that made them talk about Puerto Rico -- and I did!” Not only has La Borinqueña been wildly successful in generating conversation and political action for Puerto Rico, but she has even attracted mainstream giants like D.C. to do an anthology where La Borinqueña works with D.C. heroes to rebuild Puerto Rico post Maria while teaching the likes of Batman, Static Shock, and Wonder Woman about the history of the people.
According to scholar and founder of The Black Comics Collective, Deirdre Hollman, engaging and cultivating the imagination is key to building lasting social change. It is why afrofuturism is the core of her pedagogy. During one of the panels she moderated, the panelist, Adewunmi Roye Okupe, explained how his creative work and social activism grew exponentially after encountering African mythologies. Most high school literature curriculum only include the classic stories of Western cultures or the Antiquities. Few people of African descent will encounter the narratives of their ancestors unless introduced to them by their family or another outlet. Okupe sees his comics as an opportunity to bring these narratives out of the marginalized shadows and into the mainstream limelight, for people to see the ingenuity and creativity of African cultures, to inspire young black students to feel pride in where they come from. I’m excited to see what grows from the social imagination of the younger generations that absorb these stories.
The original meaning for the term, liturgy (a term often used to refer to worship practices of faith communities) described the work of the people for the good of the people. It was such a treat to witness the liturgy of NYCC. While I can’t speak for all comic cons, NYCC will give you an insider’s look into what good the work of popular culture is doing for the people, for the fans -- that’s NYCC and I hope you go if you have the chance!